India’s largest private airline, IndiGo, seems to be moving gingerly on its freighter network development, amid muted growth in air cargo imports and exports as demand headwinds plague major economies.

The addition of a dedicated freighter – a converted A321 – last September boosted the carrier’s cargo initiative, branded CarGo, taking off on the Kolkata-Yangon route in November.

According to CarGo International CCO Mark Sutch, the global cargo-airline industry is unlikely to see any profitability uptick this year, citing an IATA report that forecasts a 33% year-on-year decline in cargo revenue.

He said Indian fiscal year 2022-23 air shipments were estimated to be the same as the previous year, 3.14m tonnes.

“Hence, it is imperative that freighters are planned and operated on routes that are viable and have a good balance of inbound and outbound tonnage,” Mr Sutch told The Loadstar.

IndiGo offers regular freighter connections from Mumbai to the Middle East and is gradually scaling up operations out of Kolkata with two weekly services to Yangon, as well as to Hong Kong and Vietnam.

Additionally, IndiGo has been active with some project-cargo handling between India and the Middle East, and also on the domestic leg, he noted.

“As we bring our two freighters fully onstream, we are building a schedule that works for us as an airline and our customers – complementing our line-haul network with freighter lift on more freight-heavy routes,” added Mr Sutch.

IndiGo is set to add a third reconfigured A321 freighter to its fleet in fiscal Q3 (October-December).

“Our A320/321 passenger aircraft carry cargo, but the payloads are route dependent, influenced by range, passenger and baggage demand. As a result, available capacity is dynamic,” said Mr Sutch, an ex-Cathay Cargo executive, who also had a brief stint at container-airline CMA CGM Air Cargo prior to joining IndiGo.

“Given the large number of passenger flights, our line-haul uplift in passenger bellies remains significantly higher than tonnage on our freighters,” he said.

Mr Sutch also noted that on top of narrow-body passenger and freighter services, IndiGo now operates two daily B777 flights between Delhi/Mumbai and Istanbul, adding: “The B777-300ERs are operated under a wet-lease agreement and have an average 20-tonne capacity, depending on pax load.”

Overall, IndiGo operates over 300 aircraft with some 1,800 daily departures, and in Q4 fiscal 22-23, the carrier returned to the black, after substantial losses in the year-ago quarter.

Vineet Malhotra, co-founder and director of Kale Logistics Solutions, said Indian air freight volumes had been “stagnant for the past two years”, but he believes the longer-term market outlook remains positive for freighters to invest in capacity. He told The Loadstar: “India’s air cargo policy seeks to make the emerging economy among the top five air freight markets by 2025.”

Meanwhile, rival player SpiceXpress, the cargo arm of SpiceJet, wants to consolidate its freight reach and has announced a strategic partnership with domestic express delivery provider Ekart for first- and last-mile services.

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